Land mines lurk as Senate considers its version of Self-Drive Act

Oct. 25, 2017
Though the House passed the Self-Drive Act by a voice vote, reflecting Democratic and Republican unanimity on the importance of autonomous vehicles (AVs), no one should think that AV legislation is a done deal.

Though the House passed the Self-Drive Act by a voice vote, reflecting Democratic and Republican unanimity on the importance of autonomous vehicles (AVs), no one should think that autonomous vehicle legislation is a done deal.

All sorts of groups indicated they want changes to the House bill, and are hoping for the Senate to do just that. The Senate held a hearing on truck AVs a week after the House passed its bill on September 6.

The statement issued by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) on Sept. 6 illustrates the mixed feelings the nation's auto lobby has about the bill.

"We are continuing to work to improve this legislative package and are eager to review what the Senate is expected to introduce next week on the heels of tomorrow's updated federal AV guidance," says Daniel Gage, spokesman for the AAM. "Clarity, consistency, and the removal of unnecessary barriers to expanded testing and deployment of these technologies are key."

Any legislation passed by Congress would trump the revised non-binding AV policy guidance Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced on September 12. The new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidance doesn't require manufacturers to submit any safety information to the agency, nor did its first iteration published in the fall of 2016.

The Self-Drive Act does require submission of safety assessment letters, and further requires the agency to submit a rulemaking plan to Congress within one year and to issue the first rule, presumably with new, enforceable AV-related standards, within 18 months, with other rules to follow, though the bill conditions all of that on an "as necessary" clause.

The first step, however, as soon as the bill passes, would be a requirement to submit safety assessment letters to the NHTSA on level 4 and 5 AVs that a manufacturer or parts supplier wants to test and deploy. Within two years after the bill's passage, the NHTSA would have to publish a rule laying out a "a clear description of the relevant test results, data, and other contents required to be submitted by such entity, in order to demonstrate that such entity’s vehicles are likely to maintain safety, and function as intended and contain fail safe features, to be included in such certifications." NHTSA cannot condition approval of deployment on those submissions, however.

Part of what appears to be the cautionary stance of manufacturers about the House version of the Self-Drive Act has to do with the safety assessment letters, which in the first year would be based on the 12 safety principles in the NHTSA voluntary guidance revised by Chao in September. In May of 2016, in response to a draft of the first iteration of the NHTSA AV guidance, Wayne Bahr, Global Director, Automotive Safety Office, Sustainability, Environment & Safety Engineering, Ford Motor Co., sent a letter to the NHTSA opposing NHTSA review of Ford's self validation of functional safety processes because Ford didn't think that review "would provide the intended confirmation, and is likely to create feasibility concerns." Bahr did not respond to an e-mail asking whether Ford's position has changed.

Consumer groups have been skeptical of some portions of the Self-Drive Act. For example, on the day the House voted, the Consumers Union released a letter which started out by saying: "While several portions of the Self-Drive Act would benefit consumer safety, we are very concerned about other provisions in the bill that would change federal law in ways that would open regulatory gaps and fail to adequately protect consumers from vehicle safety hazards." The CU went on to argue that exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards should only be granted "if backed by evidence that a new feature maintains and enhances safety."

There is one overlooked provision in the bill that has nothing to do with AVs and could have a big impact on aftermarket shelves. NHTSA would have to research the need for a revised standard "that would improve the performance of headlamps and improve overall safety" and propose a new standard if necessary. This mysterious provision never came up in House hearings, or on the House floor. One wonders on whose behalf it was inserted. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has issued reports in the past year faulting the performance of passenger and SUV headlights.

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About the Author

Stephen Barlas

Stephen Barlas has been a full-time freelance Washington editor since 1981, reporting for trade, professional magazines and newspapers on regulatory agency, congressional and White House actions and issues. He also does a column for Automotive Engineering, the monthly publication from the Society of Automotive Engineers. He covers the full range of auto industry issues unfolding in Washington, from regulatory rulings on and tax incentives for ethanol fuel to DOE research and development aid for electric plug-ins and lithium ion battery commercialization to congressional changes in CAFE standards to NHTSA safety rulings on such things as roof crush standards and data recorders.

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